Truckee High Students Study River Ecology

This past week, June 10-13, students from the River Ecology course at Truckee High school took their science class outside to investigate some of their local waterways. Just a few minutes walk from their school lie Donner Creek and Cold Stream. During their work with Headwaters, these students were challenged to assess the health of these two waterways using the different techniques they learned throughout the semester.

Check out what students have to say about their projects:

The importance of studying a topic like this, especially in waterways local to the students’ hometown, is to help them understand the ecology of the natural world around them. These students learned that the health of a waterway can be observed by what’s in it, evidenced by the slide from one group presentation shown here.

Not only did these students come up with some great research projects, they also gained important science skills. The percentage of students that responded as confident in their ability to apply the scientific method increased by 46% between pre and post program surveys. Furthermore, the percentage of students very concerned with protecting the plants, animals and natural resources in these two waterways increased by 28%.

Thank you to the Martis Camp Community Foundation, Truckee Tahoe Airport Foundation, Truckee Rotary, and other community partners that made this program possible.

River Ecology Digital Toolkit

On June 10, 2019, Kirby Reed and his students from Truckee High School will join us for a program around their local streams. We have an ongoing partnership with Mr. Reed and are grateful for his help and support, as well as the opportunity to investigate one of the most stunning features of the Sierra with his students: our waterways. This article features resources we have used in the Truckee High School River Ecology Program.

What are aquatic macroinvertebrates?

Stonefly larva are indicators of healthy streams

One of the most interesting facets of studying river ecology is looking at aquatic life. Meet your new friends: aquatic macroinvertebrates! According to an article by the EPA, “aquatic macro invertebrates” refers to small water-dwelling animals or aquatic insects in their larval stages. This includes dragonfly and stonefly larvae, snails, worms, and beetles. They lack a backbone, are visible without the aid of a microscope, and are found in and around water bodies during some period of their lives. Benthic macroinvertebrates are often found attached to rocks, vegetation, logs and sticks or burrowed into the bottom sand and sediments.

These “indicators” can teach us about the health of a waterway, providing clues about its biological condition. Generally, waterbodies in healthy biological condition support a wide variety and high number of macroinvertebrates, including many that are intolerant of pollution. Samples yielding only pollution–tolerant species or very little diversity or abundance may indicate a less healthy waterbody, says the EPA.

Macroinvertebrates respond to human disturbance in fairly predictable ways. In fact, because they cannot escape pollution, macroinvertebrates have the capacity to integrate the effects of the stressors to which they are exposed, in combination and over time. Biological condition is the most comprehensive indicator of waterbody health. When the biology of a waterbody is healthy, the chemical and physical components of the waterbody are also typically in good condition.

The full article can be found at:

Perform your own macroinvertebrate study:

Our full manual for this activity includes more information on aquatic macroinvertebrates, a guide to our suggested research methods, and an identification key. You can access the manual here.

Surveying macroinvertebrate health in waterways activity:

Methods: Many different types of questions beyond “how healthy is this waterway?” can be answered through a macroinvertebrate survey. Students could add measurements of water quality, habitat parameters, or compare benthic macroinvertebrate populations between different locations. Below is a basic methodology you can adapt to fit your specific research question.

  1. To conduct survey in flowing water, agitate the streambed upstream of a catching net for 60 seconds. (If there is no flowing water rake the vegetation along the riverbank upwards in a circular motion for 60 seconds to collect insects.) Be sure to agitate the streambed for the same amount of time every sample.
  2. Turn the contents of the net inside out into a sorting tub half full of water. You may need to let the water settle for a few minutes before sorting.
  3. Using an eyedropper, put similar looking macroinvertebrates into the same section of an ice cube tray.
  4. Once you have fished out as many macroinvertebrates as possible, use the ID chart in our manual to identify the order of each type. If there are more than 25 of one type of in the sorting tub, you can estimate the total number.
  5. Some groups will focus on the number of macroinvertebrates found from certain pollution tolerance groups, while others create a weighted macroinvertebrate score using the following formula:

Group 1 – Very Intolerant of Pollution number of organisms x 4 =
Group 2 – Moderately Intolerant of Pollution number of organisms x 3 =
Group 3 – Fairly Tolerant of Pollution number of organisms x 2 =
Group 4 – Very Tolerant of Pollution number of organisms x 1 =

Weighted macroinvertebrate score is the sum of each group: ___________

Cal Middle School May ’19 Program Recap

Students from California Middle School found a lot more snow than they were expecting this weekend at the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit. During this science trip, they spent 3 days designing and completing their own original scientific research projects. They came up with a wonderfully creative spread of research questions such as: What are the sound muffling properties of snow? Do we find more invertebrates where there are fewer birds?

In total students collected over 1,000 data points to test their hypotheses. Over the course of the trip students spent over 13 hours of their time dedicated to science alone, which is the equivalent to 2 weeks of science class.

Between all this hard work, students were able to sneak in some group bonding time sledding, building an igloo, and playing games around the lodge. Beyond creating some impressive sled runs and research projects, students also practiced valuable science skills. Between pre- and  post-program surveys 100% of students reported overcoming a challenge with their projects and the percentage of students who responded as “Very Confident” in their ability to apply the scientific method increased by 30%.

Student Research Highlights

One of the two groups of students studying invertebrates found that invertebrates were highest near water sources and in tree stumps. In addition to overcoming their fear of spiders, this group concluded that insects were more common near water because of the role water plays in many insects’ reproductive life cycles. They also hypothesized that more invertebrates were found in stumps because most of these insects were decomposers and that the stumps may have offered invertebrates shelter from the cold weather.

Some students used speakers and audio recording equipment to measure how different depths of snow could muffle sound. They found that 50 cm of snow could almost completely muffle the loudest sound a human could make.

Three students surveyed snow depth around the lodge to learn about factors that affect snow depth in the spring. They collected data in areas that had been impacted by humans as well as in undisturbed places. They found that places humans had walked had average snowpack that was of 30% less than nearby undisturbed areas. These students thought that this was because people walking on snow caused to become dirtier, and therefore darker, which led to that area melting faster.

Understanding the mechanics of snow melt in the Sierra is especially for the hydrologists who manage California’s many reservoirs in order to prevent flooding and supply drinking water throughout dry summer months. For more information about the importance of water in the Sierra, check out a previous blog post with information on the water cycle.

Headwaters would like to thank the Sierra Club for partnering with us to offer lodging at the Clair Tappaan Lodge.

The Importance of Water in the Sierra

In celebration of the Cal Middle School students joining us on Donner Summit this May for a program on water science, we were inspired to share some of our resources. Here’s a great explanation of the importance of water in the Sierra from the Water Education Foundation. We think it’s of the utmost importance for the students we teach, and for our friends, followers, and family, to understand the importance of these vital resources in the natural world.

Stretching along the eastern edge of the state, the Sierra Nevada region incorporates more than 25 percent of California’s land area and forms one of the world’s most diverse watersheds.

The Sierra Nevada is 450 miles long and 40 to 50 miles wide and includes granite cliffs, lush forests and alpine meadows on the westside, and stark desert landscapes at the base of the eastside. Its habitats support 66 percent of the bird and mammal species and about 50 percent of the reptile and amphibian species found in California including bighorn sheep, mule deer, black bear and mountain lions, hawks, eagles, and trout.

On average, 60 percent of California’s total annual precipitation – in the form of rain and snow – falls in the Sierra Nevada and a portion of the southern Cascades.

Snowmelt from the Sierra’s provides water for irrigation for farms that produce half of the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables, and also is a vital source for dairies, which have made California the largest milk producer in the country.

In addition, Sierra snowmelt provides drinking water to Sierra Nevada residents and a portion of drinking water to 23 million people living in cities stretching from the Bay Area to Southern California.

Find out more:

Sierra Nevada Water Cycle

The Sierra Nevada watershed provides much of California’s water because of its mountains, which “catch” eastern-moving clouds fattened by the Pacific before they reach Nevada.

In the Sierras, precipitation falls and accumulates during the winter months in higher elevations as snow. The snowpack acts as a natural reservoir that holds water until temperatures rise in late spring. In spring, the snowpack melts to provide significant runoff on the Sierra Nevada’s west slope and, to a lesser extent, on the Sierra Nevada’s eastern slopes.

The rain and snowmelt captured in the upper elevations flow to fill rivers and reservoirs and recharge groundwater basins.

Sierra snowmelt in spring typically contributes half of the total annual runoff from the region. After the high risks of floods have passed during spring, water is allowed to fill the reservoirs. By late summer, when natural river flows are at very low levels, water releases from the reservoirs provide much of the downstream water supply.

Find out more:

At Headwaters, Many of the students we work with, especially those from Sacramento or Bay Area schools, don’t have plentiful opportunities to visit the Sierra, but this is the place their water comes from! By engaging students in science learning opportunities, we also encourage them to think from the source, asking questions like: where do the resources I use daily actually originate? We hope sharing this information encouraged curiosity in you, too!

*This post was authored by the Water Education Foundation

Celebrate Science Sacramento 2019

On April 29, students from Met Sac High gathered at their school to share the scientific research they’d conducted during our overnight program. These students worked hard to develop hypotheses surrounding snow science, and then joined us in the Sierra to study over four feet of fresh snow!

The focus of the program was to investigate the structure of the Sierra snowpack and learn how this translates to water availability. Coming from Sacramento, the broader impact of these projects resonated with these students who live in the farming capital of the country.

At our Celebrate Science event, some of these students presented their findings. We were pleased to watch the confident and capable presenters share what they’d learned. We observed that in every case, the students had gained confidence in asking and answering questions, conducting scientific research, compiling and analyzing data, and presenting their findings. These skills were not as honed before they entered the program. We are so proud of them!

Here are some highlights of the research conducted by students:

-One group of students investigated patterns in snow density in the snowpack to better understand how much water was stored in the snow. They found that the older snow deeper in the snowpack was more dense than the newer snow at the top. On average, the 7 foot deep snowpack they measured was 25% water, which is equivalent to 21 inches of standing water!

-Two groups focused on snow temperature. While the snow may seem uniformly cold, these students found large temperature gradients within the snow. The snow nearest the ground was always close to 0 celcius. The snow closer to the surface was much colder between -6 and -10 celcius. Students hypothesized this was because the ground was warmer than the cold winter air we were experiencing.

Congrats to all the presenting students who worked hard on their research.

From pre and post program surveys it appears these students not only enjoyed the trip but also got a lot out of it. The percentage of students who said they were “very confident” in their ability to apply the scientific method increased 29%. Furthermore, the number of students who were “very interested” or “somewhat interested” in a science related career increased by 12%.

Many of these students had never seen snow before, so getting to test first hand where their water comes from was an impactful experience. Support from three groups made this trip affordable for the students. The Sierra Club gave this group a lodging scholarship to help cover room and board costs, Tahoe Donner Cross Country donated snowshoes to help students access their field sites in the deep snow, and support from 2018 Headwaters donors allowed us to further subsidize trip costs. Thank you to everyone who made this trip possible.